I was first picked up by the gale winds of Fen in 2014 due to the very obvious Agalloch relation, but realized quickly that they aren’t just a run-of-the-windmill trees ’n’ shit atmospheric black metal band. No, they have spent the last 11 years climbing the bog oak pile in an attempt to be the kings of the ancient marshlands.
The Malediction Fields, their first LP in the ancient times of 2009, was a slightly lower-fi production in the black/folk realm. The album showed they had the ability to dominate the style with gorgeous sections that could rival The Mantle; however, it was not without its hiccups. Transitions between song sections contained some awkward rhythms and the occasional clean vocal harmonies were still trying to find their key. Now, fast forward a few years and see that the fen has been drained of the swampy muck that made it potentially uninhabitable. There were some rough patches along the way with re-flooding and some material that just missed the mark. Some may say this new cleaner version has lost its charm since all that made the fen special was its mysterious and treacherous aura, but I say that the drainage efforts have made it more fertile and the ease of exploration has only proven its power.
When Christianity was first being spread through Anglo-Saxon England, the fenland was a refuge for hermits. The isolation brought both suffering and a higher spiritual understanding, and Fen’s Winter captures this duality with ease. From the start of the journey, Fen hits you with everything they have in the first five minutes on the “Pathway”. The excellent riffs come fast and are thrown away even faster, as if flaunting yeah, we know that was great, but there’s more where that came from, so don’t get too attached. The vocals are varied, switching from those classic folk metal screeches to the contrasting clean, clerical offerings.
Winter takes a little preparation. The six phases combine to a make a 74-minute endurance test, so you must remain attentive. The fen may be mysterious, but I don’t foresee that you will run into anything unexpected along the way. The pilgrimage delivers on all of its promises, despite its lack of experimentation. In fact, the concept benefits from a lack of distraction. The punishing black metal sections are due “Penance” for the blissful enjoyment of the atmospheric breaks. There’s not a single moment on the album that sounds alien or unwelcome, unlike that weird part in the middle of “Sentinels” on Carrion Skies (not that I don’t like it, it’s just odd). Instead, Fen takes you through the undisturbed lands before any invasive species had a chance to scar. The landscape is one of beauty and danger, as the wilderness is the only place where you can be taught the euphoria of “Fear”.
There is a bleakness in the air, but the sharp guitar tone cuts through the fog in rapidly changing rhythms. The contrast between atmosphere and the guitar creates a hypnotic swirling that puts your head in a trance-like nod. The encapsulating pull explains the monasteries that will eventually be built in the fen; there is bountiful life, but not without eventual “Interment”. The foreboding and ancient church is a fitting image on the horizon, a place that celebrates life and fetishizes “Death”.
With Winter, the band said they wanted to return their roots and discover what Fen has been about since the beginning. Without question, they have succeeded in this effort. In a way, it is a perfect conceptual follow-up to The Malediction Fields. They shed some of the branches they grew along the way, and an exceptionally polished album is the result. My solitary complaint is the strange choice in a fade-out transition halfway through “VI”, where the long atmospheric introduction leads into the cathartic ending. Whether this is your first time walking the fen, or you are an experienced journeyman, I promise that Winter is a “Sight” that must be seen (heard).
If you like the genre, you will love this album. It more than exceeded my expectations, and without hesitation I give it the full…
5/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell